Dream a little dream…

May 6, 2009

Today I’m taking a quick trip to Cloud Cuckoo Land as I’ve decided that I’m going to win the £110 million Euro Lottery jackpot on Friday.

After treating myself a nice little mansion (complete with an indoor five-a-side football pitch) and a swanky pair of leather trousers (always a good look for a 30-something chubster), I’m going to use the change to buy myself a fair sized regional newspaper.

But this wont be a rich man’s folly (ok, maybe it will be a bit), as I honestly believe my newspaper will make healthy money. And if doesn’t, then at least I’ll still be doing something worthwhile with my not-very-hard-earned cash.

Yes, I’ve read all the blogs, articles and listened to the poisonous pundits predicting the inevitable demise of the regional newspaper. And I’ve seen the depressing financial statements of the big players.
I’m also a paid up member of the adapt-to-new-technology-or-die school.
But I think the reason many newspapers will cease to be is not because the newspaper is a dying platform.

It’s purely down to greed.

If the big companies could accept that the 30% profit margins of five and ten years ago will soon be about 10% to 15%, and that that the £180million of 2005 could fall as low as £80million in the 2010, then they’d have a chance at survival.

It wont happen of course. The shareholders are still demanding unrealistic dividends so the bosses will keep making cuts to try and meet them. They’ll do so until the last remaning journalist dies of exhaustion or it dawns on the final reader that he’s simply being fed rewritten press releases.

But I still believe in newspapers as a medium. TV didn’t kill the cinema or radio, and the internet didn’t kill books. Audiences fell, but they remained viable.
The smarter among you will point out that newspaper audiences are falling at a more alarming rate than those, but I think the figures will eventually bottom out.

And if you marry the remaining audiences to other platforms, then the product might still work.

So, how would my newspaper work? Well, basically as a not-for-profit venture.
I’m already stupidly wealthy remember and I’m pretty sure I could live with just the one hoveryacht.

I’m well aware that a stand-alone product probably wouldn’t cut it, but as I’ve not completed the internet yet, I’d employ smarter people than myself to play around with the multi-platform diversification malarky.

My goal is simple – a newspaper (or news product) which can sustain local journalism. While I wont care about increasing my profits every year, I’m not completely stupid and I’d want it to at the very least break even, rather than eating into the tens of millions of pounds sitting in my Barclays Super Saver account.

In very simplistic terms, the paper I work for currently can pay all its staff and overheads for the year in about six or seven months. Everything else is money in the bank (or rather subsidises other parts of the business and keeps the shareholders in hand cream). And this is in the middle of a recession.
Things would have to get a lot worse for it to start losing money.

My last post but one explains a bit about how my current paper is making money so I wont bore you too much here. Basically it’s by not being (as much of) a slave to rigid corporate policies and not giving away adverts so cheaply it harms the product.

So with the profit I think I can make, I can strengthen the business by reinvestment, putting cash aside for bleaker times and even sharing some of it about with those who helped to make it – either with genuinely fair salaries or, God forbid, bonuses.

As for staff, I’ve already got a mental list of the most talented individuals I’ve worked with for the more plum positions.

It’s a dream and a very flawed, naïve dream. But maybe one of us die-hard news types will strike it lucky and give something like this a go.

In the meantime I better get back to doing three people’s jobs.


Now for some good news

April 15, 2009

At a rather frustrating distribution meeting last week, I was pleased to get some good news about how well my paper is doing commercially.

 

It is now the third most profitable free weekly paper in the group. That may sound like a small thing, but to me it’s a massive milestone.

 

It’s important to note that although my rag is a free paper, it’s still a proper newspaper with 30 pages of news, two pages of letters, six pages of ents and five pages of sport. Pretty much all of which is original, local content.

It’s also worth mentioning that one of the more profitable frees is recycled content from the daily with virtually no overheads attached to it.

 

This post may sound rather self-congratulatory, but its point is to show how far my paper has come. And more importantly, how a little bit of leeway from the non-editorial bigwigs has helped the paper blossomed.

 

Those who know me will be aware that this is my first editorship. I’ve been in the chair for two years now, but six months ago I was terrified that my short career as the big man was about to come to an abrupt end.

 

The paper was losing money, pagination had plummeted and the editorial space was constantly being squeezed.

 

The paper in itself wasn’t too bad and it was the second biggest in a market of three free papers.

But more and more the obsession with margins and targets started pushing the importance of its editorial content way down the list of priorities.

 

The advertising ratio targets in particular became the bane of my life. 65% of all space had to be filled by ads. The target was set during a time when the paper had 20 full pages of property advertising. This had fallen to just four pages by the time I took over.

But the bean counters were adamant that these targets had to be met. Arguments that we could get a higher yield per ad with a better news product fell on deaf ears.

And as I was only allowed to bring the paper up or down by eight pages at a time, I was spending more time sitting with the advertising manager, calculater in hand, to try and meet these ridiculous goals than I was sorting out the editorial content of the paper.

The paper got steadily smaller and tighter, and while the we actually increased the number of ads, we were making much less per page than ever before.

 

I was also working without any full-time reporters as both my talented young hacks had moved on and weren’t replaced. We survived for six months with myself, my deputy, a two-day-a-week reporter and one freelancer a week. I was lucky to find exceptional freelancers at various stages (and only the one turkey), and the paper was surprisingly not actually that bad.

 

But with the industry making drastic cuts across the board, I could feel the axeman not just breathing but hyperventilating down my neck.

 

Worse, I had bought my first house just a few months before the credit crunch kicked in and my wife was expecting our first child.

 

So when I was called in during a week of annual leave to meet the MD, I was mentally rewriting my CV and praying for a not-too-souless PR job.

 

Instead I was shocked to be told that the paper had been sold to one of my rival papers – and a smaller paper at that.

Bizarrely, I was not best pleased with this at first. I had spent months trying to best these guys and they had become if not quite an Arsenal, then a West Ham to my beloved Spurs.

 

But my initial reaction was wrong, once the papers had merged, with myself and my deputy keeping our jobs, life and the paper got better. I now have two full time reporters again and I can also take county-wide copy from the daily title. For the first time in years, my paper is also covering court stories again.

 

The best thing about the merger was how much emphasis was put on the editorial side of the paper.

The thinking was to create a good quality, open newspaper, and then to try to make it work financially.

News was put before profit, even if it was just while the paper bedded in.

It was expected that it wouldn’t even make money to start with, but the profits would grow along with the paper’s reputation. In actual fact the paper made a small profit straight away.

 

The first edition looked superb (despite a few minor irritations), with twice as many pages as before and more open pages. More importantly the advertisers were prepared to pay proper rates for as their ads were not competing with five or six others on a page.

Our weekly revenues are now twice that of my old paper, and this is in the middle of a recession.

 

It’s not all been plain sailing and for the first few weeks I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with the longer commute and extended hours. But my week is now perfectly manageable, and more importantly I’m proud of what I’m doing again.

 

The paper is a long way from being perfect – another reporter would vastly improve things – but we’re holding the local authorities to account better; we’re getting good debates going in our letters page; feedback has been largely positive and I feel like an editor once more rather than a manager, a firefighter or a ‘news facilitor’.

 

So with all the doom and gloom about at the moment, I still have some faith papers can survive, but only if their editorial content is treated with respect.

The days of the 30 % profits margins have gone, and yes, that £180m profit is now just £120m.

But the fact is profits can still be had, and good profits at that.